Progress? (The Play)

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Progress? is the title of a one-time stage production that Zappa and The Mothers performed on 25 October 1968. It was first released on Ahead Of Their Time, where it takes up ten tracks:

  1. Prologue (Bogus Pomp)
  2. Progress?
  3. Like It Or Not
  4. The Jimmy Carl Black Philosophy Lesson
  5. Holding The Group Back
  6. Holiday In Berlin
  7. The Rejected Mexican Pope Leaves The Stage
  8. Undaunted, The Band Plays On
  9. Agency Man
  10. Epilogue

Plot Summary

From FZ's liner notes:

The show opens with Ian, Bunk & Art pretending to perform a serious piece of music for acoustic piano, clarinet & percussion. (They have already been introduced to the audience as The three talented members of the group -- because they can read music.) The piece (later known as BOGUS POMP), heard here in its world premiere, eventually became part of the score to 200 MOTELS, as did most of the other selections. (Research oriented listeners might want to check out the HONKER HOME VIDEO of THE TRUE STORY OF 200 MOTELS. If your video retailer doesn't stock Zappa video product, it can be ordered by phone from BARFKO SWILL -- just call 818 PUMPKIN).

Anyway, while the three talented members of the group attempt to perform The Prologue, Don Preston, in a villains cape and top-hat, sneaks onstage, interrupting their trio with a loud blast of modern electronic music.

The trio protests the interruption, to which Don responds that performance of diatonic music (and eating meat) will preclude them from seeing his aura. They argue that diatonic music is good and his electronic music is horse-shit. He argues that diatonic music is too old-fashioned, and that There must be growth! You've got to eat macrobiotic food -- and study astrology! (It is worth noting that, although the plot was my idea, each band member was responsible for generating his own dialog).

This causes the talented trio to quit The Mothers, in order to Form their own band with a lot of discipline. Suddenly, through the magic of stage-craft, their new, disciplined combo (14 members of the BBC symphony) marches on stage, wearing tuxedos, with robot-looking designs painted on their faces. Ian, Bunk and Art put on tuxes, get some bolts and widgits painted on their faces by a roving make-up artist, and take up performance positions within the BBC ensemble.

At this point, Motorhead wanders out, piddling with his tambourine. He sees the BBC disciplined combo, covets their uniforms, and demands to join their group. The ensemble rebukes him because he can't read music. In spite of this, he plans to force his way in.

While the orchestra plays LIKE IT OR NOT, Motorhead rummages on stage through a pile of musical instrument cases, magically locating a rumpled tuxedo of his own, along with enough grease paint to transform himself into a shabby replica of a robot combo member.

Next during the JIMMY CARL BLACK PHILOSOPHY LESSON we learn that If you wanna get laid after the show, you gotta play rock n roll music an drink beer -- you're not gonna get laid anyway with those uniforms on! He announces his intention to quit The Mothers, planning to make his way into the audience in order to hustle some young ladies. It was my unfortunate duty to remind him that here in London, your'e not gonna get any pussy unless you like a pop star --. The make-up team dresses him up to look like a cross between Donovan and Jimi Hendrix. With a bottle of beer (DOUBLE DIAMOND) in each hand he charges into the audience.

Just a few weeks before this show, the Pope had announced a ban on birth control pills (in spite of the persistent rumors that the Vatican had major financial holdings in a Swiss company that manufactured the little devils). To commemorate this, Roy Estrada strides on stage wearing a floor length chain-mail dress with enormous aluminum tits, and an ornate Catholic ceremonial head-dress. He is carrying a childs plastic sand bucket filled with SMARTYS (the British equivalent of M&Ms). The inscription on the bucket reads NO MORE UGLY BABIES! While chanting in Latin, he hurls fistfuls of candy into the audience, in lieu of birth control pills.

He approaches Ian in his robotically transformed state and begs for an audition as an opera singer with Ians new group, claiming that he has to leave The Mothers -- he's holding the group back because he's a Mexican (He actually used to think this was true, and told me so on several occasions.

Ian lets him try out. His selected aria: HOLIDAY IN BERLIN (We had just played there a few weeks before, and experienced a riot ). As he finishes, the robot combo boos him. At this point, THE REJECTED MEXICAN POPE LEAVES THE STAGE.

The robots play again and Motorhead, who has completed his disguise attempts to join them, interrupting with a psychotic soprano sax cadenza. The robots blow him away with several ugly chords. Seeking solace with the church he approaches The Rejected Mexican Pope for consolation. The Rejected Mexican Pope responds by attempting anal intercourse. Meanwhile...

During this musical section, Don Preston, chemically altered via macrobiotic snack consumption, is transformed into a Phantom Of The Opera-like monster. While members of the robot combo hiss and boo him, he sneaks around behind the stage set-up, planning a terrible revenge for the rejection of his electronic music. He pounces on the unsuspecting Underwood in the midst of his rapturous piano solo, strangles him, throws him to the floor, and takes his place on the bench. The final revenge? He spews forth a morbidly diatonic piece, entitled SELL US A PRESIDENT, AGENCY MAN.

Were The Mothers of Invention Ahead of their time? at least in the case of AGENCY MAN (written in 1967), about Ronald Reagan running for president. (Since Bill Casey was Reagan campaign manager, and later became head of the CIA, the idea of a political sales pitch emanating from an agency man takes on a whole new dimension.

Jimmy Carl, Motorhead, Roy & Bunk are reunited by Dons sentimental stylings. They dance and hug each other, forming a chorus line for backing vocals, while Ian lies in a crumpled heat at the side of the stage. On the downbeat of the EPILOGUE, Ian miraculously returns to life, strangles Don, and hurls him down a flight of steps, regains control of the Steinway and finishes out the show with the orchestra.